My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made earlier today by my right honourable friend Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, with permission I would like to make a statement on the report by Lady Justice Hallett on the scheme dealing with the so-called on-the-runs.
In February, Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that it would be an abuse of process to proceed with the prosecution of John Downey in connection with the Hyde Park bombing on 20 July 1982 and his trial was stayed.
The Hyde Park atrocity resulted in the brutal murder of four members of the Blues and Royals. Seven horses were also killed and just hours later another bomb in Regent’s Park took the lives of seven members of the Royal Green Jackets. These were appalling terrorist outrages carried out by the Provisional IRA for which there could never, ever be any justification. So in this House I hope that our first thoughts today should be with the families and friends of those murdered that day in July 1982. The Government fully appreciate the deep sense of hurt and anger that the collapse of the Downey trial has caused both to them and victims of terrorism more widely. I would like to repeat the apology I gave in March for that. This Government are profoundly sorry for the hurt that this case has caused.
The Downey case highlighted the administrative scheme introduced by the previous Government to deal with so-called on-the-runs. These were people who had left Northern Ireland and believed that if they returned to any part of the UK they might be arrested in connection with terrorism offences. The Government responded to the widespread public concern expressed about the OTR scheme by establishing a judge-led independent review of the scheme. I am grateful to Lady Justice Hallett for taking on this task. Anybody reading the report will be left in no doubt that she has provided us with a rigorous and comprehensive account of the scheme.
The Government accept the report and all its recommendations in full. On the central issue of whether the OTR administrative scheme gave suspected terrorists immunity from prosecution, Lady Justice Hallett is very clear. She concludes:
‘The administrative scheme did not amount to an amnesty for terrorists ... Suspected terrorists were not handed a “get out of jail free” card’.
The Government have always been clear that, if sufficient evidence emerges, then individual OTRs are liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way. So I repeat again today to the people holding these letters: they will not protect you from arrest or prosecution and, should the police succeed in gathering sufficient evidence, you will be subject to the due process of law.
Lady Justice Hallett sets out the origins, operation and evolution of the scheme. She agrees with successive Attorneys-General that the scheme was lawful. The last letter sent by the Northern Ireland Office was issued in December 2012 and I repeat today that, as far as this Government are concerned, the scheme is over.
The report sets out a number of serious criticisms of how the scheme operated, including significant systemic failures. Lady Justice Hallett states:
‘The scheme was not designed; it evolved. As a result there was no overall policy and no overall responsibility/accountability for it’.
‘lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards … When errors came to light opportunities were missed to rectify them’,
‘there was no risk assessment’.
In the case of Mr Downey, Lady Justice Hallett concluded, in line with the Sweeney judgment, that it was not the fact that Mr Downey was sent a letter that caused the trial to collapse; it was the fact that the letter contained an incorrect and misleading statement on which Mr Downey relied. The report finds that if the scheme had been properly administered,
‘John Downey would not have received a letter of assurance’.
She can find no ‘logical explanation’ of why PSNI officers failed to pass on the fact that Mr Downey was still wanted by the Metropolitan Police, nor why they failed to correct the error once it became known.
Lady Justice Hallett finds that 13 OTRs received the royal prerogative of mercy between 2000 and 2002 and that in all cases this was to release people from having to serve some or all of the rest of their sentences. No pre-conviction pardons were issued. The report criticises the lack of a,
‘central register of documents recording the use of the RPM’.
While she finds,
‘no evidence of the UK Government actively seeking to obscure the scheme from the public’,
Lady Justice Hallett states that it,
‘was not given much publicity and that important groups’,
such as victims and their families, ‘remained unaware’ of it. The report acknowledges the hurt and distress that this has caused to many victims.
Lady Justice Hallett has found two examples of somebody receiving a letter in error, in addition to the Downey case. She has also identified 36 cases dealt with between February 2007 and November 2008 which should be given priority in the exercise now under way by the PSNI to check whether the change in status from ‘wanted’ to ‘not wanted’ can still be justified.
A key question has arisen as to what the Government intend to do next to ensure that there are no more failed prosecutions like that of Mr Downey. The report recommends that we now,
‘seek legal advice, in conjunction with the police and prosecuting authorities, to determine whether’,
‘should notify any individuals whose status, as communicated to them, has changed or may change in the future’,
and that we,
‘consider how to mitigate against further abuse of process arguments, for example by confirming to recipients the factual and contemporaneous nature of their letters’.
The Government will act on these recommendations and I give the House this assurance. We will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice and in conjunction with the police, the Justice Minister and prosecutors, to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions.
The bulk of this report deals with decisions made by the previous Government in respect of their handling of the political process in Northern Ireland. It is not my role to speak for my Labour predecessors as Secretary of State; they are more than capable of speaking for themselves on the role that they played and the decisions that they took. Yet I will say this: I might not agree with every decision that they made in relation to the OTR issue but, whatever differences of emphasis and approach we might have, I recognise that they were dealing with very difficult judgments in very difficult circumstances and that they were at all times acting with sincerity in seeking to move the peace process forward.
I emphasise that Lady Justice Hallett has found no evidence that either politicians or officials ever interfered improperly with due process of law or the operational independence of police or prosecutors. The report concludes that the scheme did not impact on police investigations into historic terrorist offences. PSNI and Historical Enquiries Team files on terrorist crimes were not closed. There was no chilling effect.
It is well known that the current Government allowed the checking process to continue after we came to power in May 2010, but both I and my predecessor are very clear: had we at any time been presented with a scheme that we thought amounted to an amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution, we would have stopped it immediately. That would have been consistent with the opposition of both coalition parties to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill introduced by the right honourable Member for Neath in 2005, which was subsequently abandoned.
This Government believe in the rule of law, and that applies across the board to everyone, without fear or favour, including those in possession of letters issued under this scheme. There are many lessons to be learnt from this episode, not the least of which is the crucial importance of continued efforts to find an agreement on the divisive issues of flags, parading and the past. In dealing with the painful legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, we need a process that is transparent, accountable and balanced, which puts the era of side deals firmly behind us and which commands the confidence of all parts of the community. The Government remain fully committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland in their efforts to deliver that important goal. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I endorse her initial comments about our thoughts today being with the relatives and friends of the soldiers who lost their lives in Hyde Park. The suffering of those families, as with the families of other victims of terrorism, will go on for who knows how long.
Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome Lady Justice Hallett’s report today and accept her findings in full. We acknowledge those findings, including those that make it clear that there should have been a more systematic approach to the operation and an ongoing review of the scheme. There are lessons to be learnt by both the Northern Ireland Office and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
We are pleased that Lady Justice Hallett shatters a number of myths. She makes it clear that the scheme was not unlawful and that files on terrorist offences were not closed by the PSNI. Most importantly, she states categorically on the very first page of her report that the administrative scheme was not an amnesty, nor did it ever amount to a “get out of jail free” card. On legality, while Lady Justice Hallett questions the structure of the scheme, she makes clear on page 144 of the report that the administrative scheme was not unlawful. On amnesty, she makes clear on page 28 that:
“there was no question of the administrative scheme granting an alleged offender an amnesty or immunity from prosecution. It is clear from the views expressed at the time that the Attorney General would not have agreed to the process had that been the intention or the effect. It is also clear that successive Attorneys General maintained the same position throughout the life of the scheme”.
While Lady Justice Hallett is right to conclude in her report that the scheme was not secret, I acknowledge the concern of politicians and others who feel that they should have been given more information about the nature and application of the scheme. This includes the First Minister and Justice Minister after the devolution of policing and justice in 2010.
Most crucially, if we are going to move forward, do the Government accept that the report reinforces, rather than undermines, the urgent need for a robust, transparent and comprehensive process to deal with Northern Ireland’s past? We contend that it is now clear that the UK and Irish Governments must play a far more hands-on role in supporting Northern Ireland’s political parties to reach an agreement on the past and parades. Until this happens, one can conclude only that stalemate will prevail, leaving a dangerous vacuum to be filled by those who seek to undermine the peace process through either political means or, worse still, a return to violence.
As the Prime Minister has stated, it would be wrong to be retrospectively selective about key elements of an historic peace process that ended 30 years of violence and terror. I came into the other place in 1987 with a longstanding interest in Northern Ireland through my own family and my wife’s family, one from the unionist side and one from the nationalist side. I remember that period well and I well remember my time on the Northern Ireland Select Committee, with friends like Peter Robinson, James Cran from the Conservative Party and the late, great Eddie McGrady. It was an extraordinary period that demanded historic and difficult compromises. However, as a result of that momentous agreement, Northern Ireland has been transformed. Over the past 15 years, PSNI figures demonstrate the dramatic fall in all forms of sectarian violence, casualties, bombings, shootings and murders. These rapid improvements in the security situation have led to a striking change in the local economy and the international profile of Northern Ireland. In addition to the official bodies, at grass-roots level there are numerous heart-warming examples of reconciliation and normalisation across communities. These changes should never be underestimated or taken for granted.
Tribute must be paid to the many individuals who contributed to that process, including noble Lords in this Chamber. There were historic compromises from the unionist side in accepting the peace process and, Sinn Fein would maintain, historic compromises on its part too. Through it all, the guiding light and assurance must be that everyone who signed up to the agreement agrees that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will only ever change with the consent of the people. Many people made that compromise and we owe it to them to continue doing that.
Credit should also go to the intensive engagement of the UK and Irish Governments working closely together. In the UK context, Sir John Major deserves credit for starting the process; if a start is never made, you will not get anywhere. However, it was Tony Blair’s decision to expend unprecedented prime ministerial capital on achieving peace in Northern Ireland that was decisive. I make that point because some would like to use the controversy generated by the on-the-runs as a stick to beat Tony Blair with and allow legitimate public concern to distort the truth about a peace process in which so many people, including, as I have said, some in your Lordships’ House, played a part. No one is saying that it is a perfect peace process—there is no such thing—but it is a peace process of which I and my party remain incredibly proud. It has saved lives and allowed the current younger generation in Northern Ireland to grow up largely free from the fear and the reality of violence. Frankly, this would not have happened without Tony Blair and his Government.
I remember the time well. I was in the Whips’ Office and I played a small part liaising with various parties. Not only is my party proud of the peace process but we as the Westminster Parliament played a leading role in it collectively. The co-operation that came from all corners of both Houses and from all political parties was outstanding. Therefore, while this is a difficult situation that we need to learn from, it should not be used to undermine or diminish the achievements that we have made collectively so far.
I thank the noble Lord for his recognition of the complexity of the situation. The noble Lord raised a number of different points, and I will do my best to address most of them.
In relation to the recognition that there were systemic problems that led to the problems that the Downey case revealed, the Northern Ireland Office is already reviewing its procedures. The Permanent Secretary is leading that work, which is under way. The noble Lord referred to the fact that the report shatters some myths. It is important to note that Lady Justice Hallett emphasised the importance—in her very last paragraph, I believe—of people not making political capital out of this situation. She also emphasised in the report that the misrepresentation of the scheme has caused anguish to the families of victims. It is important to remember that the law officers and legal officials who appeared not just before Lady Justice Hallett but also before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee have all emphasised that this was a legal scheme.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has apologised for failing to brief Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive. She recognises that that was a failing. She is now, however, working very closely with the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland to deal with the outcome of this review. I recognise—and the noble Lord emphasises this point—that Northern Ireland continues to rely on leadership. There have been outstanding men and women of great courage across communities in Northern Ireland in recent years who have stood up for their beliefs and for peace. We must hope that that process continues. I have to say that I first visited Northern Ireland in the late 1990s and when I go back now I am always struck by the progress that has been made. Devolution has changed the centre of gravity and it is important now that it is the devolved Administration that need to take the lead. The Government fully recognise the complexity and difficulties that the previous Government were facing over many years of the peace process.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement from my noble friend and identify these Benches with the concern for the victims who have been spoken about by noble Lords on both sides of the House. However, we must do more than simply speak about our concern for the victims. We must act in a way that shows real concern.
A number of things have been revealed in this report—it is more than 270 pages long, so it is difficult to get a full assessment of it in such a time. Already it seems to me that some of the assessments are mistaken, including some of those identified in the Secretary of State’s comments. For example, she said that,
“the bulk of the report deals with decisions made by the previous government in respect of its handling of the political process”.
It seems to me that the bulk of the report is not about the decisions but about the process that led to the decisions. It is quite clear that the process was shambolic and was a whole approach to government from the very top. Decisions were not taken in a formal and proper way. I know that to have been the case during the process itself.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, about not taking it to pieces and certainly not behaving retrospectively. However, some of us made criticisms at the time about the way in which it was being handled. Subsequently, many of the problems that we continue to experience are because of the unwise ways of reaching decisions about prisoners, weapons, dealing with the past and issues of that kind. It is quite clear that time after time Lady Justice Hallett identifies the failure to keep any list of pardons and the failure to keep any account of the decisions that were made. I think that this Government, as well as any future, never mind past Government, must learn about process. It is not sufficient to have this kind of sofa government, or any emblem of it, particularly when one is dealing with matters that are serious life and death issues and matters of law.
We have to go back and revisit those things to learn from them—not just to be critical, but to learn that we should not behave in that way again. I am afraid that the evidence is that the lesson has not yet been learnt. The Secretary of State is now saying, quite properly, that she will make sure that she informs Ministers in the devolved Government. That means that they were not properly informed before. We had a Bill yesterday where we were looking at legislation about arrangements for the NCA, and so on. It was quite clear that there was no discussion at an early stage with the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Justice Minister there. I know that because I raised it with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the reply was almost, “What a shocking suggestion”. The fact is that we should have been doing those negotiations.
Of course we should not be unhelpfully critical, but we are here to hold government to account and to try to improve the processes. It is quite clear that some of those processes were seriously mistaken. As an emblem of that, I will put a specific question to my noble friend. Given that these letters gave reassurance, and were meant to give reassurance, to individuals that at the time of their issue they were not wanted for questioning by the PSNI or other forces, and given that we are told that the PSNI and others have not closed the cases, will the PSNI be formally withdrawing letters, or otherwise formally notifying individuals concerned if and when intelligence, information or evidence comes to hand that changes their status back to being wanted for questioning? I ask because if there is not a proper, formal scheme of withdrawal instigated, arrests and subsequent court cases could well be endangered again, as in the Downey case. I ask my noble friend for assurance on that, not because it is the only question but because it is symbolic of some of the failings of the past.
My noble friend asked about the royal prerogative of mercy and the failure to keep lists. In fact the royal prerogative of mercy is not used only in relation to terrorism cases. It is used very much more widely and it was used much more frequently in the past. Legislation has changed and enables the justice system now to deal with issues such as early release from prison in a different manner. It has simply not been the custom to keep lists of this nature, and I would say that in regard to the Northern Ireland Office investigations, it is not the case that the problem related entirely to the time of the peace settlement and the time of devolution. It predates and goes well back into the last century.
My noble friend referred to poor administration and organisation. The report by Lady Justice Hallett is very clear about the areas of poor administration. The key point she makes is that it was a system that evolved and was not created. The Government acknowledge that as time went on and the scheme developed and grew, failure to take the opportunity to review, update or risk assess the scheme added to the problems of the scheme.
My noble friend asked whether the Government were thinking of withdrawing the letters because of the dangers of impairing prosecution. Lady Justice Hallett recommended that the Northern Ireland Office should seek legal advice in conjunction with the police and prosecuting authorities on what to do in cases where errors may have been made. That process is already under way. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is reviewing all the cases. Lady Justice Hallett makes clear that that review will be thorough and will take years rather than months. However, she made clear that the judgment in the Downey case stood on its own facts; it was a judgment in the first instance which should not be applied to any other examples, and was not binding in any other cases.
I think my noble friend did us all a great service in drawing our attention again to the victims in this, for whose families today will not be easy. It is important to remember the names of those who died: Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Vernon Young and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Major Roy Bright. It is important that, as we have these discussions here today, we hold them in our minds and thoughts.
My Lords, I also welcome the Statement. As we read the Hallett review, I agree with the noble Baroness that we should never forget the innocent victims.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, I will be critical. This has been a sorry debacle, which has given no credit to the Blair Government—or, indeed, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. For many months now, it has undermined confidence in the rule of law. The people of Northern Ireland have seen that members of a specific terrorist organisation appear to have been given, at the very least, a letter of comfort that indicates that all is forgotten and they can come home to the United Kingdom in the knowledge that they will be free from prosecution and can live a life of comfort—unlike their victims. That clearly was the implication and interpretation given to the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA, who requested these letters in the first instance.
Much has been said about transparency, or the lack of it, regarding this matter. I will ask the Minister a specific question. Can she inform the House why and when the Government of the Irish Republic were made aware of this scheme, and why the Northern Ireland Executive and parties in Westminster were not so informed?
The noble Lord referred to the nature of the scheme, and for the absolute clarity of the House here today, I will repeat that this was not an amnesty and it was not intended to be an amnesty. Lady Justice Hallett is quite clear on that. The Downey judgment was the result of an error in an individual case that should not have occurred, not as a result of the general design of the scheme.
The noble Lord asked a specific question about the Irish Government. The Irish Government had been involved in discussions with the UK Government over the period of the peace process. They had been closely involved in discussions and, for that reason, they were aware of the scheme. I repeat that, of course, the devolved Executive of Northern Ireland should also have been consulted and informed, and should have known about it in an official format.
My Lords, I will make four points. First, does my noble friend agree that this was a wholly dishonourable scheme because it conferred benefits and assurances on one small group of which everybody else was kept in ignorance? Secondly, since it was a dishonourable scheme, why did this Government allow it to remain in being from 2010 until 2012? Thirdly, my noble friend may recall that in a Question in April I asked for assurances that the police force in Northern Ireland would be given not just resources but also every encouragement to pursue the cases against terrorist suspects, to secure the evidence and bring them to book. What progress has been made?
Fourthly, I will touch upon the Sewel convention, of which my noble friend made a great deal in the Answer to a Question by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, yesterday. The Sewel convention provides that the Government at Westminster will not normally take action in areas that are devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. Since 2010, security and justice have been so devolved. Why were the Executive kept in complete ignorance?
My noble friend refers to this as a “dishonourable scheme”. It is clear from the coverage given to it in the extensive report of Lady Justice Hallett—which is very detailed and thorough; one must be grateful to her for her efforts—that the scheme could have in principle applied to those who were not necessarily republicans. Indeed, I believe one name was supplied from the unionist community.
It is, however, an issue of logic that members of the unionist community do not tend to go on the run to the Republic of Ireland. They would be much more likely to have stayed in the UK. Over the years, some members of the unionist community were, I believe, the subject of the royal prerogative of mercy.
Why did the current Government continue the scheme? By the time of this Government, it was dealing with smaller numbers of people: 45 cases have been considered since May 2010 and 12 letters were sent by the Northern Ireland Office since May 2010, stating that on the basis of current evidence the person concerned was not wanted by police. Two further “not wanted” indications were sent by the PSNI without involving the Northern Ireland Office. However, the current Government have issued no letters since December 2012. It is important to repeat again that the Government regard the scheme as finished.
My noble friend raised the Sewel convention. Of course, as a result of that convention and the fact that devolution had occurred, the Northern Ireland Executive should have been fully involved. I have said this, and the Secretary of State has made it clear in her Statement and apologised for the fact that they were not formally briefed.
My Lords, as one who was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place for the whole of the previous Parliament, it is clear to me that this matter was not as well handled as it should have been. However, one understands that there was a passionate desire not to see the peace process unravel. I understand that fully. We have to recognise that we have a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland and a Deputy First Minister who very recently had an audience with Her Majesty the Queen, and I am very glad that it happened. I would much rather have that happen than have a return to the Troubles. However, we have to maintain the rule of law and reach a tidy conclusion. I wonder if we might not consider all those who are guilty of terrorist offences and are prepared to admit their guilt eligible for the royal prerogative of mercy, and those who are guilty and not prepared to admit it would be liable to prosecution. The sooner we can ensure that the PSNI devotes all its resources to combating current crime, rather than investigating past crime, the better.
My noble friend is absolutely right to emphasise the passionate desire at that time to make sure that the peace process did not unravel. We must never take progress for granted. It would be quite possible for there to be major problems even now.
My noble friend makes some interesting points on how problems that this administrative scheme was designed to deal with might be dealt with under a scheme that involved pardons. There have been numerous ideas and attempts at cracking this problem. None of them has been fully satisfactory but many great minds are at work on this issue and I very much hope that people will continue to keep this at the forefront of their mind. It is a problem that has to be solved in one way or another, but it is not something that this report in itself will solve.
The noble Baroness has stated that the Government accept this report in its totality. She has quoted from the last paragraph of that report, and I, too, will quote from it. It says:
“One catastrophic mistake has been made and it cannot be undone. The families of those killed in the Hyde Park bombing have no choice but to come to terms with that fact, as devastating as I know it has been for them”.
Does the Minister accept, if there is to be a restoration of confidence in the community in Northern Ireland, that it is imperative that whatever happens from this day forth has to be done in an open and transparent manner?
The Hallett report also makes a number of recommendations. Can the Minister assure us that all those will be implemented? Can she give us a timescale? Can she also assure us that, in the event of further or new legislation being required, there will be no hesitation in bringing that forward as early as possible?
The noble Lord points out some significant words at the end of this report that make very difficult reading for the families of the victims of that bombing. He asked about the timescale for implementing the recommendations. I have already said that the Government accept all the recommendations and indicated that in some cases work is already under way in dealing with the issues. However, it is important that we do not set a timescale. The work of the PSNI, which faces significant recommendations of its own, has already begun in reviewing all cases. However, it would be totally inappropriate to put an artificial timescale on that because the emphasis of that work must be on thoroughness rather than speed in order to ensure that the work is done properly and will stand up in court if tested. That certainly does not suggest that the Government are putting any of this off; the work is currently under way.